Spirit Canoe: paddling’s viral music video

Behind the scenes of Montana's intriguing state-funded short film


A visually compelling online music video has received a lot of traffic since it was released in late February and was recognized as a Vimeo staff pick. With the support of the Montana Film Office (and the state tourism board), “Spirit Canoe” tells the story of a one man’s journey through the rugged wilderness of Montana. Songwriter Nat Kendall wrote the song as a tribute to a friend who passed away. The lyrics “play on the metaphor of an American Indian ritual involving the Spirit Canoe,” says Kendall, a Montana local who performs the song with his rock/electronica band, Symbols of the West.

Kendall partnered with the Bozeman-based Helio Collective to produce the video. Director Chad Dawson asked the songwriter to play the lead role—despite his inexperience in a canoe. “I had never really paddled before this production and it was a wonderful learning experience,” says Kendall. “Some of those rapids on the Middle Fork certainly expedited the learning curve and got my heart racing.  I’m very interested in paddling more now.”

According to its Vimeo description, “‘Spirit Canoe’ is the mystic journey of a man who is in search of himself and navigating through a passage with the memories of his once self and a special figure who lingers in his soul. He is setting out on a quest, armed with his old map and small canoe, to venture the river in hopes that a new path will reveal a novel future, unfamiliar and restoring. This is a story of the spiritual compass that no one can ever expect to understand; it’s powers, it’s unknown.”

Intrigued, we caught up with Dawson to learn more. — Conor Mihell

CanoeKayak.com: How did the video come about? Where did you get the idea to illustrate the quest from the perspective of a canoeist?
Chad Dawson: To me the idea of the journey on a canoe, especially in Montana, is one that is incredibly symbolic of life. It seems like with each bend, rapid, calm stretch and deep eddy comes something related to the trials that an adventurer such as a canoeist goes through. The idea behind “Spirit Canoe” focuses on the loss of someone very dear to the heart and trying to overcome that feeling of emptiness and remembrance. Trying to find new ways and follow along on the path one thinks they should take, only to find out that the path was completely different then anyone would have ever known.

Spirit Canoe

The list of production credits is really long. Can you talk about how everyone came together to produce this film?
Nat is a long time friend of Helio Collective and we had wanted to work on a project for Symbols of the West for a long time. We knew that it was important to keep the project focused around the environment and nature as that is a huge influence on their music, and with that, of course, came filming the project entirely in Montana. Our biggest hurdle was funding. We thought of a few different avenues to source the funds and finally reached out to the Montana Film Office and received a gracious grant from them to complete our project, entirely in Montana. As the director, I also wrote the entire script and treatment for the film and collaborated a lot with our director of photography, Logan Triplett, on how to tell our story in a narrative visual form. Nat was in huge support of the idea and scope and to me it was no question when I asked Nat to take on the role of lead actor.

How did the production come together?
A lot of people talk about “passion projects” and I think sometimes it gets diluted around true projects that people pour themselves into for the sole reason that they believe in the project and they want to collaborate on something unique. That is exactly what “Spirit Canoe” was—a true passion project for all involved. This project absolutely would not have been what it is had we not had an astoundingly dedicated crew that rallied around each other and a great project that they believed in. I was absolutely amazed at the people that bent over backwards to make this film happen, from the crew working from 3 am to midnight, to the canoe builders getting our canoe rush shipped here literally minutes before we left to go out on our first week of production shooting.

Legions of “hard-core” canoeists may take a more critical stance on your style, gear, etc. What’s your response to those who dismiss Spirit Canoe as not cutting close enough to the core of “serious” paddling?
“Spirit Canoe” was never made to be a film that would focus on the “serious” paddler as its main audience, as that really is not what the story is about at all. However, we were incredibly grateful to have Nat even be as experienced as he was, especially when we started looking at some of the rivers we wanted to run in Montana. To us, we wanted the authentic feel of someone who maybe wasn’t the perfect paddler, as the frustrations of running miles and miles of river is something that goes hand in hand with this journey. There were lots of times when the paddling scenes weren’t perfect and Nat even tipped a few times. But to us it felt authentic; there was no reason to keep those things out. And for those who think no one can dive off of a 14-foot canoe, neither did we. But by the powers that be, Nat dove off the canoe over and over in the introduction to the underwater scene with only minimal belly flops here and there.

Are you happy with the outcome?
We are incredibly happy with the outcome of “Spirit Canoe” and have been overwhelmed with the positive feedback and messages we have all received from people inspired by the story, music and visuals. We are looking forward to the next project with Symbols of the West and can’t wait for more filming in Montana.

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  • sternocreed

    Well done video. I love that canoe. Seems to have decent rocker and great stability. I’m wondering who designed the boat, if it’s possible to get building plans.

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